The Doriana Apartments in southeastern San Diego / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The San Diego City Council has allocated even more funds to the San Diego Housing Commission to give out to people struggling to pay their rent and utilities because of COVID-19, though the agency has for months struggled to dole out the funds it already has.

A change in state rules governing the use of state housing assistance funds has helped the Housing Commission spend more of the money, but as of Aug. 3, of the total $135 million allocated for assistance payments, only $66 million has been given out.

In May, officials at the Housing Commission said they wouldn’t be able to spend all of the funds due to limitations set by the state.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a measure into law at the end of June extending the state’s eviction moratorium and increasing the cash assistance available to low-income tenants and small landlords under the state’s rent relief program. Tenants and landlords are now eligible to receive 100 percent of back rent and 100 percent of upcoming rent for up to three months, if funding is available. Prior to the change, landlords had to agree to waive 20 percent of the rent they were owed to receive funds and only a fraction of upcoming rent was covered.

The change in rules helped the Housing Commission spend down some of the funding or deem people eligible before the Aug. 1 deadline initially set by the state. On July 27, the City Council authorized an additional $60 million toward rental and utility assistance for households impacted by the pandemic. The majority of that funding came from the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

Under the measure, an initial group of funds must be spent by Jan. 31, 2022, and all of the funds must be spent by Sept. 30, 2022.

Spokespeople for the Housing Commission and the mayor’s office offered conflicting accounts of whether Mayor Todd Gloria is considering using the funds in other ways if the commission can’t spend them before the federal deadlines. Susie Cawood, a spokeswoman for the Housing Commission, said Gloria is exploring alternatives. But Jen LeBron, the mayor’s spokeswoman, said that they are committed to using the funding for rental assistance and utility payments and are not exploring alternatives at the moment.

According to an Aug. 3 memo sent by Housing Commission CEO Rick Gentry to the mayor and City Council, there are still limitations preventing the agency from helping some residents. Gentry said allowing people to use the funds to pay down personal housing-related debt due to the pandemic would help many additional households in need. Some households that have incurred debt through high-interest credit cards or payday loans to keep up with rent can’t qualify for emergency rental assistance because they don’t have past due rent.

Gentry said in the memo that he recommended to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen that the assistance include those forms of debt in May, and that Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla made similar requests in July.

As of Aug. 5, the Housing Commission has received 16,899 applications and as of Aug. 3, it has disbursed payments to 8,113 qualifying households.

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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